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(2007) 39.2, 195205


Vol. 39 No. 2, pp. 195205, 2007
ISSN 0004-0894 The Author.
Journal compilation Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007

Blackwell Publishing Ltd

The politics of design: architecture, tall buildings
and the skyline of central London

Igal Charney

Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Haifa, Mount Carmel, Haifa 31905, Israel
Revised manuscript received 2 January 2007

After 2000 a handful of very tall buildings were approved in central London, a
circumstance that challenged well-established planning practices in that part of the city.
Their promotion by Ken Livingstone, the mayor, but opposition to them by conservation
groups, seemed to signal a fierce campaign ahead; in fact, it was all over in an instant.
This article examines how this debate was framed to dismiss the arguments and concerns
of those who oppose tall buildings. To make tall buildings acceptable, Londons mayor
drew on the merits associated with iconic architecture and high-profile architects. Under
Livingstones incumbency tall buildings were affirmed by the expertise and clout of
global architects who provided legitimacy for mayoral ambitions to reach for the sky.
Stressing the significance of high-quality design and iconic architecture helped to wear
down deep-rooted antagonism and to channel the debate to improving the aesthetic
qualities of London, a goal that enjoys wide consensus.

Key words:

London, skyline, urban design, tall buildings, global architects, iconic architecture


After the revolt against the lumpish high rises of the
1970s, in most European cities both architectural and
public sentiment determined that nothing else should
be allowed to break through a strict but unstated
height limit. Then, equally suddenly, the received
wisdom was turned on its head. Building tall became
an obsession for architects not just in Asia and
America, but in Europe too. (Sudjic 2005c, 3601)

The shift related above is reflected in cities across
Europe. In each city that experienced this change, a
number of tall buildings were recently completed:
Barcelona, Munich, Cologne, Malm, Bonn, Nuremberg
and The Hague are a few such examples. In other
cities, such as Moscow, Madrid, Amsterdam, Rotterdam,
Manchester and Birmingham, tall buildings were
approved or are under construction. Tall buildings
have become

sine qua non

of place in the global
hierarchy of cities (Zukin 1992, 203) and the only
visible symptom of world city formation (Taylor


2002, 233). Construction of tall buildings often
involves global architects (dubbed starchitects) and
iconic architecture, both having gained importance
in recent decades (Sklair 2005). Property firms
acknowledge the aura associated with global architects
in promoting developments; political leaders likewise
appreciate the instrumental role of architecture as
an expressive means of urban re-imaging.
In London a dramatic change is expected to trans-
form its skyline; by 2015 the city should have 1


20 skyscrapers, many of them in central London



2006; Teather 2006). This change is largely
attributable to the activism of Londons mayor
(McNeill 2002a 2002b). Shortly after assuming
office as Londons first elected mayor in mid-2000,
Ken Livingstone announced his backing for the develop-
ment of tall buildings in the capital, including the City
and its surrounding boroughs. Initial concerns stirred
debate between Livingstone, pro-development
boroughs (e.g. Corporation of London, Tower
Hamlets and Croydon), and leading conservation
bodies, namely English Heritage and the Commis-
sion for Architecture and the Built Environment



Vol. 39 No. 2, pp. 195205, 2007
ISSN 0004-0894 The Author.
Journal compilation Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007

(CABE) (McNeill 2002a). But after a brief campaign
the opposition dwindled; this generates the question
why? In this article I suggest that examining how the
debate was framed is crucial for understanding why
tall buildings were eventually approved. The campaign
orchestrated by Livingstone expressed a strategy that
made use of the artistic and aesthetic values associ-
ated with iconic architecture and global architects.
In the linkage of global city status with spectacular
tall buildings, high-quality design was repeatedly
stressed to make such developments acceptable and
appreciable. Global architects who were commissioned
to design tall buildings participated in Livingstones
campaign, shoring up the legitimacy of tall build-
ings as symbols of global power. Architectural
authority and eye-catching designs were skilfully
used to appease opponents of tall buildings. As
spectacular architecture became a desired element
in many cities, it was placed high on the develop-
ment agenda. The debate was no longer about
whether tall buildings were needed; arguments
instead encompassed issues such as location, design
merits and architectural qualities. Framing the
debate around these issues defused deep-rooted
antagonism and lasting perceptions.

City leaders, architecture and urban design

Making visually aesthetic cities is not novel, nor is
the connection between political leaders and
monumental architecture (Kostof 1991). Still, during
the past couple of decades, urban design has gained
importance in the planning agenda of many cities.
The shift of approach from urban managerialism to
urban entrepreneurialism (Harvey 1989) has made
city governments more responsive to business needs
and more aware of intensifying competition between
cities. They have to come to recognize that
spectacular and innovative architecture designed by
star architects may positively contribute to the
exposure of their cities. Such is the case in declining
industrial cities such as Bilbao or cities which have
aimed to improve their global standing such as Sydney
and Kuala Lumpur. Designed by the American
architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum in
Bilbao has become a cultural icon, re-imaging the
entire city and creating tourism (Evans 2003; Plaza
2000). Petronas Towers were meant to put Kuala
Lumpur on the world map and make it a world city
(Morshidi 1997 2001; Bunnell 1999). In many cases
entrepreneurial and long-serving mayors have played
a key role in shaping cities: Pasqual Maragall in
Barcelona, Francesco Rutelli in Rome and Frank
Sartor in Sydney are a few examples (McNeill 2001
2003; Punter 2005).
Impressive architecture and renowned architects
have become essential elements of the postmodern
city (Olds 2001; Gospodini 2002; McNeill 2002a
2005; Evans 2003; Sklair 2005 2006). Architecture
has acquired a life of its own, and the development
of standard tall buildings, such as simple rectangu-
lar boxes, is no longer enough. Architecture ex-
emplifies the globalization of the urban form: it is
certainly the search for architectural icons that
drives the process in globalizing cities (Sklair 2005,
498). In a world of abundant attractions, the best
architectural designs are considered prerequisite for
the production of instantly recognizable distinctive-
ness, since projecting the image of being global
is as important as being global in the competitive
global economy (Marshall 2003, 23). As images
become differentiating mediums, prestigious and
distinctive landmarks turn into cutting-edge locations
for global capital.
Global architects (a group of maybe 30 names;
Sudjic 2005c, 318) play an essential part. They have
become influential figures and their works are
highly desired in every city around the globe that
seeks to pull together an assemblage of distinguished

Every ambitious city wants an architect to do for them
what they think Jorn Utzons Opera House did for
Sydney and Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim did for
Bilbao. (Sudjic 2005c, 318)

Internationally renowned architects are vital because,
as suggested by the deputy mayor of Bilbao, good
architecture is not enough anymore: to seduce we
need names (quoted in Gonzalez 2006, 12). In this
context tall buildings have won a leading position:
many national and civic leaders have chosen
intervention in the skyline as an important part of
scripting a world city status (McNeill 2002a,
325). In Shanghai, top architects with an international
reputation from Britain, Italy, Japan and France were
contacted for the planning of a new business district
of tall buildings. The lack of local experience in
global architectural practices was deemed irrelevant
by the Chinese organizers since the foreign teams
were supposed to supply the shock of the new,
associated with high Modernism (Olds 1997 2001).
Similarly, Cesar Pelli was commissioned to design a
new symbol for Kuala Lumpur (Petronas Towers)
and the global architectural practice of Skidmore,
The politics of design



Vol. 39 No. 2, pp. 195205, 2007
ISSN 0004-0894 The Author.
Journal compilation Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007

Owings and Merrill (SOM) designed Burj Dubai,
which on completion will be the worlds tallest
Obviously, whether to develop large-scale and
spectacular projects is a highly contentious matter.
Those in favour of them highlight expected eco-
nomic benefits and potential social opportunities as
supportive factors. Decision-makers use these
arguments to legitimize controversial developments,
particularly those that are large-scale and conspicu-
ous. By and large, justifications focus on economic
grounds, namely the promotion of growth. Cities
that compete to host mega-events such as the
Olympic Games and world fairs assert that huge
spending on spectacular projects such as sport
stadiums and infrastructure facilities is worthwhile
because of their positive economic impact on cities
in the long run. Social aspects are often highlighted
too. Providing social housing and revitalizing
deprived neighbourhoods are proclaimed crucial for
creating equality, and accordingly justify excessive
density rights. Impressive tall buildings are also sup-
ported by an appeal to the grander ambitions of
local and national leaders. For local planners and
politicians in Shanghai, an appropriate method to
express the achievements of the reform era was the
development of impressive skyscrapers. Skyscrapers
were attractive because of the association of towers
with modernization, and the recognition that Shang-
hai is the most international of all Chinese cities
(Olds 1997; Marshall 2003). This is probably the
case with the recent surge in extravagant skyscrap-
ers in Dubai, which aims at widening its global
exposure. But European cities remain suspicious of
tall buildings:

Europe doesnt much like skyscrapers. There, tall
buildings a quintessential American architecture
form are generally regarded in a negative light,
suspicious products of rapacious corporate speculators
bent on destroying the fabric of life and cultural
heritage of old European cities. (Dupr 1996, 111)

The overall built form of the historic core and
particular landmarks within it were considered
historical assets. Preserving the recognized and
human-scale fabric of the historic city has been the
main argument for opposition to tall buildings. The
completion of an extra-tall building in the 1970s
(Maine-Montparnasse, 210 metres tall) sparked
fierce criticism and resentment toward high-rise
buildings in Paris. This tower, which is situated
close to the historical core, became a dominant
element in the citys silhouette, dwarfing many
historic Parisian landmarks (Sutcliffe 1993). The
outcry led to a ban on buildings of more than eight
stories in the city centre. The recent link of tall
buildings with global standing and with iconic
architecture has made them more acceptable in
some European cities. Newly completed tall buildings
designed by star architects may become urban icons.
Turning Torso (Malm: architect Santiago Calatrava),
Torre Agbar (Barcelona: architect Jean Nouvel), and
the Gherkin (London: architect Norman Foster) are
possible candidates for identification with the skylines
of their respective cities.

Bringing tall buildings to central London

I have no intentions to recreate Manhattan here; I
want London to flourish as London a unique
exciting and truly global city . . . London must
continue to grow and maintain its global pre-
eminence in Europe. London must continue to reach
for the skies. (Mayor of London 2001, 34)

Until the 1960s London maintained a relatively low
skyline because of the tight restrictive environment
that aspired to preserve the visual dominance of its
historic buildings such as St Pauls Cathedral and
the Houses of Parliament. The development of
several, albeit isolated, tall buildings in the 1960s
and 1970s in Londons West End (Centre Point and
Euston Tower) and within the City (Britannic House
and NatWest Tower) somewhat changed Londons
skyline. Further change occurred in the 1980s when
the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher
encouraged greater private involvement in urban
development. The start of the Canary Wharf project
in Londons Docklands and the completion of its
first major tall building there in 1991, One Canada
Square (50 stories, 237 metres high) opened a new
era of tall-building development on Londons
perimeter. Still, tall buildings were largely missing
from central London.
Under the recent administrative rearrangement of
London (the Greater London Authority Act, passed
by Parliament in 1999), the mayors role in the
course of Londons future development is crucial, as
most of the executive powers are vested in him or
her. The mayor has statutory capabilities to reshape
urban development as he or she is responsible for
the citys spatial development strategy (expressed in

London Plan

, released in 2004). Among other stipu-
lations, this Act requires local planning authorities



Vol. 39 No. 2, pp. 195205, 2007
ISSN 0004-0894 The Author.
Journal compilation Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007

to consult the mayor on proposals for tall buildings
(thresholds for tall buildings vary according to loca-
tion). Ken Livingstone, Londons first elected mayor,
changed from a hard-line Labour Party member
(Red Ken) and opponent of unrestricted capitalism
into a keen sponsor of tall buildings, the ultimate
symbols of capitalism. His aim was to reshape
Londons skyline, in particular its core, which is
most closely associated with global-city functions.
Notwithstanding his potential powers, the mayor
has few resources to implement them as he or she is
heavily reliant on central government for funding
(Sweeting 2003). The lack of financial resources has
made Livingstone actively court the business sector
and adopt a strong pro-business attitude (Syrett
2006). Such an attitude allows him to realize his
own programme, overcoming the lack of financial
power; it helps gain independence in relation to
central government (Thornley

et al.

2005). In this
complex situation tall buildings present clear bene-
fits for Livingstone. They carry potential benefits for
planning for example, social housing can be provided
as a result of the award of planning permission for
tall buildings (Ross 2001; McNeill 2002b). In addi-
tion, many of Britains influential property firms and
choice boroughs


are behind the development of
tall buildings.
Livingstones arguments for pursuing the develop-
ment of tall buildings rest on the need to provide
top-quality office space to keep London at the apex
of the world-city hierarchy (McNeill 2002a 2002b;
Gordon 2004). For Livingstone, unless London gets
more top-quality office space in tall buildings, it
risks losing its position as the predominant financial
centre in Europe. Competition from Frankfurt as
Europes financial centre and the need for state-
of-the-art office space has posed a major threat to
London (McNeill 2002a). Livingstone drew on the
case of Swiss Re to demonstrate his concerns. Swiss
Re, one of the worlds leading reinsurance companies,
hinted that unless it was allowed to build a distinc-
tive circular tower on the site of the old Baltic
Exchange (within the City), it would take itself, its
jobs and its huge investment in the British economy
back to mainland Europe (Sudjic 2001a). In July
2000, just two months after assuming office, Living-
stone urged that its development (30 St Mary Axe
known as the Gherkin) not be subjected to public
inquiry. In his letter to the Deputy Prime Minister,
John Prescott, he indicated that Any undue delay in
the planning process could jeopardize Swiss Res
presence in London (SAVE Britains Heritage 2003).
The Deputy Prime Minister was highly supportive of
tall buildings and when he had to make a decision
on controversial plans he inclined to give his
approval. This was the case with Heron Tower,
Shard London Bridge and Vauxhall Tower.

London Plan

, the strategic plan for London, firmly
endorses the development of tall buildings. This
plan offers a dual rationale for their development.
First, land is scarce in central London and the need
to maximize the opportunities presented by the few
remaining development sites justifies the construction
of tall buildings. It is no longer possible to provide
sufficiently large buildings in the City in the form of
low-rise large-scale buildings (groundscrapers). Second,
tall buildings are connected to global stature: to
maintain its global position and meet the needs of
certain tenants, London has to consign a portion of
its office space to prestigious tall buildings (Mayor
of London 2004a). For this purpose,

London Plan

calls for the development of ten to fifteen tall buildings
in the City and elsewhere in the first decade of the
twenty-first century.

Critique of Livingstones strategy

Livingstones tall-building strategy drew fire from
their natural opponents, namely conservation
groups such as English Heritage and SAVE Britains
Heritage, and even from the Prince of Wales. Prince
Charles launched an attack on the inflated egos of
the architects and the heads of corporations that
built them (Worsley 2001). A parliamentary sub-
committee which examined the need for tall
buildings disagreed with Livingstones assumptions,
arguing that there was no evidence that any
company had left London or refused to come to
London because of a shortage of tall buildings and
tall buildings are more about power, prestige,
status, and aesthetics (House of Commons 2002, 5,
26). In turn, Livingstone used harsh rhetoric against
the opponents of tall buildings whom he could
attack. He claimed that their chief critic, English
Heritage, was the biggest threat to Londons future
since the Luftwaffe, denouncing it as the Taliban
of British architecture (Sudjic 2001a 2001b). He
believed that English Heritage was standing in
the way of his campaign to revitalize London
(Sudjic 2005a). When the Deputy Prime Minister
granted permission for Heron Tower, a
controversial tall building in the City, a plan that
English Heritage attempted to stop, Livingstone felt
The politics of design



Vol. 39 No. 2, pp. 195205, 2007
ISSN 0004-0894 The Author.
Journal compilation Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007
This shows that English Heritage are out of touch.
Their arguments about Londons skyline have been
completely defeated. English Heritage should not be
allowed to undermine the economic confidence of
the city by calling in every tower proposal there is.
(Mayor of London 2002a)

The debate on tall buildings came under the close
scrutiny of the media, and major newspapers
reported regularly on the issue. Journalists and
commentators in leading newspapers were highly
critical of Livingstones fixation on tall buildings.
Deyan Sudjic, architecture critic of the


and author of

The Edifice Complex

, a book that
charts the relations between power and architecture,

London is going to be the nearest Europe comes to
Shanghai. Footloose international finance, a mayor
intoxicated by high-rise architecture, and a developer-
friendly planning system have unleashed a wave of
developments that are bigger, and brasher, than
anything the city has yet seen. (Sudjic 2005a)

Writing for the


and the

Sunday Times

Simon Jenkins criticized Livingstone, but also the
Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who had the
power to grant or overturn planning permission:

They [very tall buildings] have been unleashed by
that most lethal political phenomenon, a socialist
enthralled by capitalism, in Londons case Prescott
and the citys mayor, Ken Livingstone. (Jenkins 2005)

The architects of tall buildings came under fire too:

They [architects] are adept at using an artists license
to flatter power. They must, because their art is
expensive and prominent. It is on public exhibition
for generations to come. It also needs to obliterate
what went before. Tower builders claim the entire city
for their canvass. They demand the right to over-paint
Canaletto. (Jenkins 2005)

Expecting opposition, the proponents of tall buildings
recruited leading consulting firms that would
provide professional support. These firms explored
various aspects of tall buildings; not surprisingly,
all supported the need for them. A property firm
(Development Securities PLC) recruited a group of
researchers from the LSE Cities Programme. This
group studied five cases (Berlin, Frankfurt, New
York, Paris and London) and provided a review of
the development of urban design guidelines for tall
buildings. The key problem of existing tall buildings
in London, according to this report, was their poor
architectural quality: well-designed buildings were
required. This report suggested that the previously
cautious attitude to tall buildings in London was
due to haphazard and negative attitudes prompted
by the dismal high-rises of the 1960s: Londons
skyline is messy and unstructured, offering few
positive role models when it comes to tall
buildings (Development Securities plc 2002, 6). An
international design consultancy (DEGW) prepared
a report for the Greater London Authority that
supported the need for tall buildings in London,
stressing the role of high-quality design as an
important indicator of new tall buildings (DEGW
2002). Another consultancy firm (Faber Maunsell)
prepared a report commissioned by the Corporation
of London. This document, which focused on
sustainability, argued that high-quality design had
the potential of improving sustainability (Corporation
of London 2002).
Criticism by conservation groups and the media
did not stop Livingstone. The parliamentary sub-
committee on tall buildings, though not convinced
that tall buildings were essential for the future of
London as a global financial centre, concluded: if
they [tall buildings] are to enhance the skyline it is
important that they are well-designed (House of
Commons 2002, 5). This last conclusion was whole-
heartedly embraced by Livingstone and the supporters
of tall buildings.

Putting architecture in focus

Good design is central to all objectives of this plan
[London Plan]. It is a tool for helping to accommodate
Londons growth within its boundaries. Particularly
given its strong growth, very high standards of design
are needed to make London a better city to live in and
one which is more attractive and green. There is a
strong link between good design and the attraction to
economic investors to help create a prosperous city.
(Mayor of London 2004a, 173)

As in Sydney, where the mayoral objective was to
elevate architecture and design from the mediocre
to the iconic (Punter 2005), Livingstone decided to
focus on architectural quality. He also indicated
that he would support a criteria-based approach to
the assessment of tall buildings in which quality
design rather than height should be the key criterion
by which planning applications were to be judged
(Mayor of London 2001).



Vol. 39 No. 2, pp. 195205, 2007
ISSN 0004-0894 The Author.
Journal compilation Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007

To solidify the role of architecture in his develop-
ment agenda, Livingstone set up an Architecture
and Urbanism Unit in April 2001, appointing an
internationally acclaimed architectural authority, the
London-based Lord Richard Rogers, as his chief
advisor on architecture and urbanism. The timing
was by no means accidental. The appointment was
made at the height of the preparation of the


and at a time when several plans for tall build-
ings were in the pipeline. Lord Rogers is a highly
distinguished architect with numerous London designs
(e.g. Lloyds of London, Millennium Dome and
Terminal 5 Heathrow) as well as worldwide (e.g.
Centre Pompidou and Madrid Barajas Airport); he is
also the chairman of the governments task force for
the revitalization of English cities and towns.


June 2006 Livingstone announced plans for a new
architecture and urban design unit (Design for
London). This new unit merges staff from different
units that engage in design enhancing the importance
of city-wide design. In Livingstones view this unit
will support the delivery of world-class architecture
across Londons built environment; his declared
goal is to make London a world leader in sustainable
urban planning, design and architecture (Mayor of
London 2006a).
As Livingstones advisor, Rogers accentuated the
role of design in the city-building process. He
criticized the present method of planning because
Many of the delivery bodies operate first and
foremost as land dealers and surveyors concerned
with numbers and management, not design (Rogers
2005). He eagerly defended the importance of
design and high-quality architecture for London,
suggesting that for this purpose the mayors powers
had to be expanded:

Unless the mayor is empowered, and given a greater
say in this multitude of poorly coordinated quangos,
we shall never produce a sustainable policy or design
to compare to the best abroad. And if we dont get the
design of cities and neighbourhoods right then all our
work on crime, education, health, jobs and social
exclusion will be undermined. (Rogers 2005)

The discussion was framed in terms of architecture
partially to appease those who opposed tall buildings
or those who were sceptical about their need. The
aforementioned parliamentary sub-committee identified
design as one of the key subjects it wished to
examine. Concerns were raised about whether the
present movement to erect new tall buildings was
in danger of repeating the mistakes of the 1960s.
Renzo Piano, a distinguished architect and the
designer of Londons tallest approved building,
Shard London Bridge, agreed that the 1960s loomed
over contemporary architects:

The problem is that architects who want to build
skyward are paying for the sins of their fathers. The
generation of architects and builders who spent the
postwar years filling the craters left by the Luftwaffe
bequeathed London a dispiriting pile of ugly concrete
high-rise boxes. (Wallace 2003)

Livingstone praised a recent design by Richard
Rogers Partnership (Leadenhall Building).


In this
case, design was used to offset the impact of tall
buildings on the historic city:

The building will be nonetheless fall comfortably
within the standard world class architecture and any
perceived harm to the historic environment will be
more than overcome by its ability to delight the eye.
The buildings easily recognisable shape will allow
recognition from long distance static views and
London panoramas. (Mayor of London 2004b, 10)

With a strong-minded mayor, powerful property
interests and a government that endorsed boroughs
decisions to grant planning permission, the opponents
of tall buildings stood little chance of stopping the
development of tall buildings. Once they realized
that their campaign was largely ineffective, as they
could not stop the erection of those buildings, they
too adopted a strategy that stressed the role of high-
quality design. In 2003 English Heritage and the Commis-
sion for Architecture and the Built Environment
(CABE) published the

Guidance on Tall Buildings

In this document the issue of design had a top

Proposals for tall buildings should not be supported
unless it can be demonstrated through the submission
of fully worked-up proposals that they are of the
highest architectural quality. (English Heritage 2003)

Instead of denunciation of tall buildings in central
London, these groups made constructive comments
for proposed tall buildings.
Conservation groups focused on aesthetic con-
siderations in their campaign against tall buildings;
Livingstone and his team used similar arguments to
justify the development of tall buildings. As heritage
and architecture watchdogs, they were able to make
design issues of decisive importance; on the other
hand, the design-oriented approach provided a
The politics of design



Vol. 39 No. 2, pp. 195205, 2007
ISSN 0004-0894 The Author.
Journal compilation Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007

convenient escape route once other efforts were
exhausted. Design was stressed subsequent to
public inquiries that endorsed the plans for two
controversial tall buildings, Heron Tower and Shard
London Bridge. After these public inquiries, opponents
realized that it was difficult to resist tall buildings
which conformed to strict design criteria. CABE
awarded its support to many controversial tall
buildings; only English Heritage maintained almost
across-the-board objection to tall buildings in central
London. Even after design amendments to proposed
plans were made, English Heritage persisted in its
objection to tall buildings; this made English Herit-
age one of Livingstones most bitter adversaries.

Global architects and the development of
tall buildings

In an interview with the

International Herald Tribune

Livingstone convincingly argued that companies
will choose London only if they can occupy signature
buildings designed by architects like Foster (Bowley
2005). In his study of Norman Foster, McNeill (2005)
suggested that his designs became brand names
with their signature Foster look. Designed by the
architectural practice Norman Foster & Partners, 30
St Mary Axe (also known as Swiss Re Tower or the
Gherkin) became almost instantly an urban icon
(Lane 2004). Opened in 2004, it is already regarded
by many as the most recognizable symbol of the
contemporary City of London. As Charles Jencks
remarked, this rocket [the Gherkin] inspires such
a kind of cosmic awe that makes Christianity
[represented by St Pauls Cathedral] look a bit like
yesterdays faith (Jencks 2005, 1


Even Simon Jenkins, a harsh critic of the tall-
buildings mania, acknowledged the iconic features
of the Gherkin, listing its credentials to date:

It won the 2004 Stirling prize [the highest award of the
Royal Institute of British Architects]. It scores as most
visited on Londons Open House list [buildings
normally closed to the public that are opened for
the weekend], and was acclaimed by Cond Nast
Traveller as one of the seven wonders of the modern
world. It has been on the cover of Newsweek, the
Olympic bid and Time Outs London guide. The
Gherkin features in Match Point, Bridget Jones and
Basic Instinct II, supplanting the Post Office tower in
Londons visual image. (Jenkins 2006)

Undoubtedly, the Gherkin sets a precedent for
future tall buildings in the City of London in terms
of creating highly memorable architectural statements
and at the same time providing top-quality office
space. The ability to create a modern icon for
central London which is atypical in respect of its
well-known icons (e.g. St Pauls Cathedral and the
Tower of London) in such a short period substantiated
Livingstones idea of enhancing Londons skyline by
developing eye-catching iconic tall buildings. The
architects of the newest buildings approved for the
City are eager to copy Fosters success. In their
marketing efforts nicknames have been attached to
buildings; Bishopsgate Tower designed by Kohn
Pedersen Fox (KPF) is known as Helter-Skelter,
Leadenhall Building by Richard Rogers Partnership
is the Cheese Grater, and 20 Fenchurch Street by
Rafael Violy Architects is the Walkie Talkie.
Beyond their unique architecture, such nicknames
assign distinguishable and memorable identities.
Sudjic (2005b) argues that even the opponents of
tall buildings recognize the role of such architects:

Rather than trying to stop big new developments,
CABE has concentrated on ensuring that architects it
approves of get to build them. As well as Richard
Rogers and Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Rem
Koolhaas and other architectural celebrities have
benefited from this policy. CABEs view, echoing that
of the City planners and Ken Livingstone, appears to
be to allow the market to let rip, provided St Pauls
is untouched, and that developers use famous
architects. (Sudjic 2005b)

Another acclaimed architect, Renzo Piano, is
making his mark on Londons skyline. Rising to 305
metres on the south bank of the Thames, Shard
London Bridge will be the most extravagant tower
to be erected in London in the near future.
Decision-makers in the hosting borough (Southwark)
view this tower as a chance to generate additional
spillover benefits. For that reason extreme height
and striking design are of significance. When the
application was approved by Southwark council,
Livingstone explained his support:

With the continued involvement of the current
architectural practice [Renzo Piano Building
Workshop] the proposal will deliver architectural
quality and status of what should be a singular
building of outstanding design and integrity and of
strategic importance to London. (Mayor of London

In spite of the mayors extremely keen support, the
government called in the application and it went for



Vol. 39 No. 2, pp. 195205, 2007
ISSN 0004-0894 The Author.
Journal compilation Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007

a public inquiry. On the eve of the inquiry the chief
executive of English Heritage said,

This is the wrong location for the tallest building in
Europe. This colossal building is crammed onto a tiny
site and looms oppressively over the surrounding
area. (Weaver 2003)

This decision to call in Shard London Bridge for
public inquiry was made soon after the Deputy Prime
Minister gave his support to another controversial tall
building, Heron Tower, and Livingstone was almost
certain that the later decision was a waste of time
and of public money.


To provide legitimacy for his
support for the project, Livingstone placed Richard
Rogers in the van. Rogers praised the design of his
former associate (Rogers and Piano are the architects
of Centre Pompidou in Paris), suggesting that:

It would provide for a dramatic landmark structure
with a distinctive profile and presence, which would
add positively to the London skyline and the image
of London as a World City through the provision of an
iconic and emblematic building of outstanding design
quality. (Mayor of London 2003, 26)

Architectural quality played a role in the decision of
the Deputy Prime Minister to grant permission for
this project:

[t]he proposed tower is of the highest architectural
quality. Had this not been the case, the Secretary of
State might have reached a different decision, but
he considers that the quality of the design of this
particular building is a very strong argument in its
favour. (ODPM 2003)

So attractive was the design that even an official in
English Heritage intimated that they had nothing
against Pianos design itself: we feel a bit conflicted
opposing something so wonderful (Wallace 2003).
This statement by the strongest opponent of tall
buildings exemplifies how star architects and out-
standing designs have been instrumental in silencing
critics and defeating long-lasting resentment to
tall buildings. Grander architecture seems to be a
powerful token in the battle over urban development
skilfully used by urban boosters.


This article explored the use of design aspects in the
debate on the development of tall buildings in
central London. Consensus prevailed in the pursuit
of high-quality design, unifying all who did not wish
to repeat previous mistakes, particularly the
disastrous architecture of the 1960s. That tasteless
era, almost unanimously criticized, was contrasted
to the spectacular and promising design of the
twenty-first century. Since his election as Londons
mayor, Ken Livingstone has shown remarkable
persistence in his crusade to reshape Londons
skyline. His support of tall buildings abolished his
anti-capitalist image and perhaps redefined him as
a pro-development mayor. Expecting strong opposi-
tion, he chose to draw attention to design and
architecture as the lingua franca of the tall-building
discourse. Unlike the outcry and powerful criticism
heard in many European cities, Londoners seem to
accept the development of tall buildings. A survey
conducted on behalf of English Heritage in 2001
found that the British public was certainly not
opposed to tall buildings per se but would not
support unlimited expansion; more particularly,
London residents were more likely than people
living elsewhere to support the construction of more
very tall buildings (English Heritage 2001).


To lessen the opposition of conservation groups
and those interested in preserving the historic built
form and to create a distinct skyline, architectural
quality has become a predominant factor in deter-
mining the future of tall buildings. This strategy is
partly facilitated by the fact that proposed tall build-
ings are of impressive designs. Foster, Rogers and
Piano made Livingstones mission easier because
their work is associated with iconic architecture, an
asset considered precious for every city. Global
architects and iconic design were used to relegate
long-lasting opposition to tall buildings. By taking
big-name architects and stressing the role of design,
it was possible to ensure that tall buildings were
justifiable by virtue of their conventional raison
dtre, but also because of their aesthetic qualities.
Today architects are not just artists engaged in design
per se, they also engage in promoting and even
shaping urban planning policies. In this context, the
appointment of Richard Rogers as Livingstones
chief advisor on architecture and urbanism is rather
unique. By and large, global architects are freelanc-
ers who offer their expertise to clients worldwide; as
such they do not assume public duties. From his
position as the mayors advisor, Rogers suggested
that it is time to reposition the status of design:

While we continue to treat architecture as a
marginalised add-on, quantity will always prevail
The politics of design



Vol. 39 No. 2, pp. 195205, 2007
ISSN 0004-0894 The Author.
Journal compilation Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007
over quality, mammon over imagination. To construct
cities around the belief that urban design and the
public realm can be considered once land deals,
planning policy and economic viability have been
settled, is to submit our cities to a form of vandalism
from which few will recover. (Rogers 2005)

Perhaps, this latest call by Rogers is shared by other
leading architects; yet none has assumed a position
so influential as Rogers. Although it is rather nave
to think that this view is to be adopted, practices of
the past couple of years indicate that architecture
and design may hold more power in the development
of cities. In a highly competitive world, striking
architecture provides not just recognizable identities
but also artistic and aesthetic legitimacy. This
justification helps to play down antagonism toward
large-scale developments such as tall buildings
which have the potential of altering the familiar
skyline of cities. According to this scenario,
architecture and design may occupy a more
powerful position in dictating future urban growth.


1 Competition has been especially fierce between the Cor-
poration of London and the Borough of Tower Hamlets.
Massive office development in the Docklands and the
relocation of firms challenge the unrivalled ascendancy of
the City of London. For instance, between mid-2001 and
2005 gross office completions in the City reached 764 000


, whereas 924 000 m


were added in Tower Hamlets
(Mayor of London 2006b).
2 The


called him the design tsar for London (Muir
3 Recently Richard Rogers has been taking a back seat on
design and Graham Stirk is emerging as the key tall build-
ing designer in his practice.
4 Livingstone cited that the public inquiry into the Heron
Tower scheme caused around 18 months delay in granting
permission and cost approximately 11 million (Mayor of
London 2002c).
5 In a poll conducted for the London Architecture Biennale
in 2006, Londons newest tall building, the Gherkin, was
voted the citys best new building by the general public.
On the other hand, it was nominated as one of the five
ugliest buildings in London by viewers of the BBC, who
placed it fourth out of the five choices they were given
(BBC London News 2006).


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